Nine years ago, I began to slowly awaken to my racial prejudices and white privilege. It was a rude awakening. During the past three years, I’ve blogged about that journey from racial ignorance. Recently, someone asked me what have been the biggest surprises along the way. What do I know now that I didn’t know before? What follows is a short list of some of my bigger epiphanies and the posts where I shared these revelations.
I didn’t know that for a short period after the Civil War black people made significant progress in political and economic terms. I didn’t know we had black US Senators and Representatives, that many southern states had black legislatures, that black literacy rates skyrocketed and blacks make significant economic gains. I didn’t know about the reign of terror necessary for whites to end this moment of possibility, murdering thousands of black men, women and children. A Splendid Failure.
I didn’t know lynching is a term that covers a whole range of violent acts, usually beginning with cutting off the victim’s ears, nose and sexual parts, burning of body parts or the entire person, hanging the body, dragging the body through the streets, and usually depositing the mutilated corpse in the middle of a black neighborhood. I didn’t know this often happened in a picnic atmosphere, with white children encouraged to watch. I didn’t know that in the hundred years after 1865 a lynching took place once a week somewhere in America. Avoiding the L Word.
I didn’t know very few enslaved persons lived on plantations like those glorified in white literature and media. Most enslaved persons lived and worked in conditions more like those practiced by the Nazis in their work camps, where the goal was to squeeze the most labor possible out of a person before their death. Enslaved adults seldom lived past the age of thirty. I didn’t know slavery in the United States was industrial and enslaved persons were systematically tortured. I didn’t know the term “slave” objectified enslaved persons and allowed white people – in the past and now – to avoid seeing them as human beings. Whitewashing Slavery.
I didn’t know that allowing enslaved persons to have wives and families was a means of control and profit rather than a sign of humanity. Enslaved persons with families were less likely to try to escape or rebel against their treatment. Their families were hostages. Additionally, one of the ways for slave owners to increase their wealth was to sell their slaves. I didn’t know, in the 1850s, the chief export of the state of Virginia was enslaved persons. Slavery As America’s Original Sin.
I didn’t know scholars and sociologists believe nearly 100% of enslaved women were sexually assaulted. I didn’t know how much the free access of white men to black bodies was part of white culture. Some sociologists estimate 50% of all children of slaves had a white father. This kind of sexual aggression continued throughout Jim Crow. I didn’t know the conviction of a white man for raping a black woman was extremely rare before 1960. When Rape Was Legal.
I didn’t know that – in some ways – the years after the end of slavery were worse than during slavery. I didn’t know vagrancy laws allowed white people to “arrest and convict” nearly any black person and enslave them. Thousands of black families were torn apart as fathers were sent off to “serve their time” in factories and on farms. The death rate at these prison camps was as high as 50%, meaning that the penalty for “vagrancy” in the south was often death. Worse Than Slavery.
I didn’t know black people began asking for reparations in 1864 and that no economist questions the tremendous wealth enslaved persons created for white people. I didn’t know lynching was one means of squashing any discussion of reparations. I didn’t know the New Deal and the GI Bill both systemically excluded black men and their families. I didn’t know black leaders have been asking for reparations for generations. I didn’t know white resistance to this reasonable request has always used the same racist rhetoric. How To Know If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question.
There is so much I didn’t know. I didn’t know the obstacles that my black daughter will face as she navigates a world while black. I didn’t know how deeply rooted racism is in every American institution and practice. I didn’t know how many times every day I benefit from white privilege. I didn’t know how pervasive white supremacy continues to be, barely hidden under the surface of our culture. I didn’t know how often our nation has elected a president who blatantly sympathized with these racist sentiments. Trump is simply the most recent.
But none of these epiphanies qualify as my biggest surprise.
Most of all, I didn’t know how resistant white people would be to hearing and knowing our history, to acknowledging present injustices. Again and again, I have encountered white people who deny, rationalize or excuse this history, who pretend all is well. They insist that whatever happened in the past has no bearing on our present racial divisions. While most white people seem perfectly willing to celebrate countless events and persons from US history, when it comes to anything that has to do with racial oppression, we do all in our power to change the subject, shift the focus and obscure the facts. Ugly White History Month
My biggest surprise has not been what white people don’t know, but what white people don’t want to know. I didn’t know how important this militant and willful ignorance is to sustaining white supremacy. It is nearly impossible to maintain an ideology of white superiority if one truly examines the inhumanity and brutality of white behavior toward people of color for the last 400 years. I didn’t know how absurd arguments for white supremacy truly were. White Inferiority.
There is so much I still don’t know.
I don’t know how we dismantle a system of white supremacy, when most white people are perfectly happy with the status quo. I don’t know how we educate white people about the history of racial oppression when they refuse to acknowledge the facts. I don’t know how we can possibly heal as a nation until white people admit past injury and seek forgiveness. I don’t know if writing about this makes much difference.
I do know this.
Writing, discussing and even learning about racism is worthless, if it doesn’t change our behavior, opinions and passions. Dismantling racism will require a systematic reconstruction of every aspect of American life. It will require white people like me becoming radical and vocal advocates for reparations and reconciliation, demanding the institutions we control and inhabit act differently, surrendering power and resource to those from whom we robbed of this power and resource. What we attempt will be revolutionary.
I do not know if we will be successful.
I do know I want to try.
41 thoughts on “Things I Didn’t Know”
Reblogged this on Misadventures in the 785.
We are all guilty of judgement by appearance. We should all be sorry and seek to change. Let’s not let fear and anger stand in the way of that. The rules apply to everyone and Love is the fulfilling of the law.
“We should all be sorry” is a little to close to “there are fine people on both sides.” We who are white carry the burden of needing to apologize. Suggesting otherwise is not moderation, but denial. Also, the rules don’t apply equally to everyone. That is at the core of racism. While I agree that love is crucial, love that does not act toward righting wrongs is a rather worthless.
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As a matter of fact, I do know many of the facts in this article. However, my vision is of shared power to make the most progress for all of us. Let us not assume that all people of certain colors have the same views and/or experiences. Joan Staples
I also know many of the facts which the author lays out here because I have a grad degree in history. But I’m confused why you think that she assumes “all people of certain colors have the same views and/or experiences.”
I think you’re in a bit of denial Joan Staples.
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This reminds me of “white man’s burden”. But instead of it being your burden to educate and make sure the African Americans are Christian it is now your burden to fix all wrongs done against them. Sounds to me that you want to scrap all of the past so that we can restart the future.
I did know some of your facts, but at least one is incorrect. According to “incidents in the life of a slave girl” by Harriett Jacobs (published in 1860, while she was still a fugitive) she wasn’t raped. Therefore it wasn’t 100%. Nothing is ever 100%. I really wish you would have cited your sources so that others could learn more about your facts.
I am not saying you are wrong, African Americans have been treated badly since at least the 1600’s. They shouldn’t have had it done to them. The hate needs to stop. The division needs to stop. It is always a good idea to get a different perspective and learn something new. But it is never good to throw out everything old. Use the past as a “let’s not go back there”. If we destroy it, we will forget over time what the boundary is and go over it even further the next time.
Those who have created a problem have a responsibility to solve it. While this must be done “with” rather than “to” black people, we who are white have such a responsibility. Part of that responsibility is to know our history, even when it is ugly.
As to your complaint about the 100% rape figure, I always find it interesting when people want to use the “exception” to negate the rule. I wrote about this in this post: https://notetomywhiteself.wordpress.com/2018/11/25/what-saying-there-were-blacks-who-fought-for-the-south-says-about-a-white-person/.
That being said, there probably were exceptions to my rape claim, though claiming Harriet Jacobs as your exception isn’t as conclusive as you suggest. We know many who have been raped never speak of it. You do not know that she wasn’t raped. You only know she didn’t report it. However, I’ve revised the post to read “nearly 100% were sexually assaulted.”
As to sources, if you’ll dig deeper by reading the noted posts, I give many of my sources. However, from the tenor of your comments, I wonder if you want to know the facts or dispute the facts. I hope it is the former. Finally, your call for the hate and division to stop rings odd when it implies this is a generic problem. Hate and division toward people of color has been the primary motivator of white people for 300 years. Yes, it should stop. Pretending it is generic is one of the reasons it doesn’t.
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Just wanted to note to Jennifer that Harriett Jacobs in fact was in some ways raped by the lawyer who fathered her children. The situation of her birth and circumstances made her a girl/woman who was forced to find the least violent and horrific option for her relationships and reproductive years. Throughout her narrative she actually did mention that the system of slavery for a black girl/woman made them constant victims. She also many times complained and lamented about the fact that slave girls/women could not be “ladies” meaning they were forced to be mistresses and commit adultery/fornication because of their status and how this was damaging to black girls/women and the entire black demographic. Enslaved women could not legally deny any man (including enslaved black men) access to their bodies so it could be reasoned that all of their sexual relationships were instances of rape via coercion and lack of ownership over themselves. There are instances as well in American history where black women were sentenced to prison or murder both as slaves and as free for killing white men who would not stop raping them. One of those cases, that took place in Missouri, the ruling was that the slave woman did not own her body and a white man had a right to use her as he saw fit.
I agree that 100% of black women were victims of sexual abuse, assault, and/or rape. As a black woman who has been interested (probably way too much versus most people) in black history and the black experience in America since I was a young girl (started with me reading Frederick Douglass’ narrative when I was about 9 or 10), I am luckily or unluckily, however you look at it, very aware of everything that the author of this blog detailed above.
I admit I do have a different perspective, but probably because I am a black woman. I also do not judge white people (or black) regarding their ignorance of the black experience with overt terrorism and systematic racist oppression in America. It is not something most people in my view want to review or acknowledge because it is a painful subject. Only judgement I will state to someone in conversation or in writing is when said person (either black or white as there are many black people ignorant about the topics blogged about in this post) is educated about these subjects; yet gets defensive about something that they personally did not do or insinuate that these topics should not be discussed or written about because it is “in the past.” The past has a direct impact on the present and the future. This is especially the case for African Americans in regards to socio-economic conditions and the psychological view of “blackness” of the entire demographic today.
I’ll further note that I do not believe that any black American can “cure” white racism or racist attitudes. I feel only white Americans can and that many white Americans are very defensive and get offended and angered about discussions of the history of racial oppression and terror in this country. I think it is a good idea for whites who are truly interested in diminishing racist traditions and the culture of American that sees black (to this day) as inferior to discuss, teach, and parent in a way to cause change in this regard. I’ll also state that black Americans need to focus on ourselves and knowing our history thoroughly and not “blame” whites today for their own lack of knowledge about our history. There are too many libraries and too many valid internet sites today for anyone who wants to learn about American history to be prevented from doing so.
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Thank you so much for this thoughtful response, especially noting how the disparities in power made most sexual relationships inherently coercive for black women. I had not thought of it in precisely those terms, but I need to.
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Agreed. One thing opened my eyes early on…the writing of Toni Morrison and also Maya Angelou. Their stories provided a window for this young white girl. The art of storytelling has a unique power to make people begin to understand. Also, as a white woman, thank you to you and many other Black people who have allowed white people to try, to be human. I’ve often been so grateful and happy not to have been judged and written off in advance. It is really humbling, given the history, all the injustice that existed and that has been inherited, that people still give others the benefit of the doubt. May we all bear this everyday greatness in mind, and pay it forward.
Well written and quite interesting. Thank you for your openness to something so many either chose to ignore or pretend doesn’t exist.
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Very well said. Sharing to my friends.
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Reblogged this on L.A. Media Reform.
Thank you for this post.
This whole matter of how racism is transmitted from one generation to the next is of course fraught with a plethora of issues and stumbling stones. Even moreso is the path of trying to un-teach those lessons (or circumvent or divert them).
My husband and I went as a young white family to live in Mississippi at the height of the civil rights unrest in the 60s for him to take a position on the faculty of the stalwart HBCU Tougaloo College, near Jackson. Our children were 6 and 3 at the time; we initially lived in faculty housing on campus at the college, since it would have been very dangerous for us to try to live off campus in that atmosphere.
We tried to keep as normal a home atmosphere as possible for the kids, but of course the air was filled with conversation about black-white issues, various activities being planned on or near campus, major discussions of black-white concepts, certainly including discussions of enhancing the self-image of black children and students.
I thought we had been fairly successful at keeping a good balance in the conversations that they heard, but I was quite startled one day when my son (the older child) asked me very seriously if white people were all “bad”. All of a sudden I had to take the “lessons” I had been preaching, and turn them around!
Developing a new way of living together with people who have been kept separated by societal forces will require a LOT of creative thinking and loving, and must be applied in ALL directions, sometimes quite to our surprise.
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Reblogged this on Anna Gilcher, PhD – Changing (My) Life with French and commented:
It’s been one year since my neighbor Rob was killed by police in our neighborhood while on his daily walk. Here is a powerful piece that helps us understand the background of why my walking through my neighborhood and his walking through that same neighborhood lead to such different outcomes.
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Thank you, James and the rest of you,
I am a seventy something white male from ND and MT. I was, and am, pained by the distances between myself and Native Americans, Blacks and other people I was not used to. I ended up taking a class or two on African American Studies beginning in fall of 1968. The class often got messy when one or more Black students spoke out with her/their truth and some white got defensive or whatever. Our teacher, a Black Chicago man from Chicago fresh into a university in Montana was an excellent mediator and teacher.
Next I took Native American studies course when I live on a reservation. Once again I learned some more and what helped most was that it was more important to me that I open myself to learning and welcomed distrust and hostility. Then was when I grow. I am married fifty years to a smart feminist woman. I am a feminist, but I can only be a feminist if I can take the heat, feel the pain of learning what only a woman can know. We can give up, quit, but how does that help? I want my friends and those I haven’t gotten to know yet to have a good life. I want my wife, my son and his “mixed blood” daughter to live well and be safe.
Lets put our selfs out there in little and extraordinary ways to unlearn our miseducation, learn the history and feel the pain, Be allies, friends, lovers and warriors. We have a lot to do.
With love, Rob Sand
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Reblogged this on atheistsmeowatrandom and commented:
Let’s spread this around…
Reblogged this on ~Burning Woman~ and commented:
This article, this opinion piece, this truth, needs to be reblogged a million, million times until every person on this world gets the message. Please take a few minutes to read this article and also read the comments, if you like “deep” and “serious.” We all need to have this information foremost in our mind when we go on about racism, wherever and whenever we encounter this second greatest evil among Earthians, the greatest evil being misogyny, a twin evil.
Thanks for your kind words and sharing this message.
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Excellent intro to our current break open consciousness of the decline of western civilization! I am white female intellectual observer and read about history. Now is a new scene. Humankind has been riding for a fall and it is happening. Enslaving women and blacks and any color of tribal people and imposing European culture tinged with their co-opted religion on every continent is over. Exploitation of natural resources is over. The pandemic is not over! The stock market is chaotic! If the discourse can shift to reparations for USA and its systemic racism then maybe our systemic capitalism can see itself in the forefront of major change.
Put the climate on the list!
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I have reblogged this article. There is nothing I could add to the great comments made here. I just wish that billions of people could read this, and realize how we are all complicit in some way with this horror.
It’s so rare to see this point of view, and I thank you deeply. It’s extremely difficult for people to understand something they haven’t experienced themselves so it’s easy to generalize with “Not everybody’s racist, let’s not be negative and let’s love each other” or “It’s the past and I had nothing to do with it,” etc., etc., but as was said above, the past is not past: it’s affecting the present moment right now. And those who had no direct involvement with slaves or slavery or institutionalized racism and maybe are good people today are still benefiting every day, in myriad different ways, from all of it, even if it’s simply from the act of walking through a store without being followed or passing a woman on the street who doesn’t suddenly clutch her purse tighter. And those are the small things, the daily cuts and snips at the psyche and the soul, the dignity and sense of self-worth.
The journalist who wrote “Black Like Me,” in the ’60s took a brave step forward in order to discover these things, but how deep did those revelations penetrate? Would we be where we are today if they had penetrated? It amuses me when I think of all the horrible things Trump has said and continues to say, but remember the nationwide outrage and outcry when Michele Obama said it was (sic) “the first time in her adult life she was proud of her country”? Now for some, having read this post, it may be much clearer why she said that in the first place and also why the *outrage* was so predictable and cliched. Another wasted opportunity that degraded into finger-pointing instead of being the catalyst for self-introspection and intense discussion. Sometimes I wonder, though: are we even capable of intense discussion anymore? I mean, it’s good, in here. But this is like two handfuls of people, right? I sadly feel very pessimistic about it.
But still thank you for your post.
There are many reasons for pessimism, but I believe dialogue is one of the ways we combat racism. It cannot be the only way, but even a handful of changes can have a ripple effect.
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If nothing else, interacting with like minds here on WordPress keeps one from feeling totally marginalized. A thinking person these days can feel as if she/he was locked up in solitary.
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And thanks for re-blogging, Sha, or I never would have seen this. (Obviously) 🙂
Just discovered your blog and have yet to read through all of it, so you may have addressed this elsewhere. But, you mentioned that the willful ignorance of White people is what has most surprised you most. I encounter the same, to varying degrees, in 100% of the White people I engage with and I’m wondering if you have some insights into what can trigger people to begin their own journeys. In your case, I’m reading that your daughter was the catalyst for kicking your journey into high gear. But, what types of appeals have you found that work as a White person trying to motivate other White people that may not have significant people of color in their lives?
Great question! I wish I would offer some tried and true formula for “waking” white peers, but I think most change is incremental. My parenting of a black daughter was an epiphany, but my learning and changing still took many years. I suppose his blog was one type of appeal. By the responses I receive, reading the reflections of others struggling with these issues can move people. That being said, I still think having significant relationships with a person of color are the most transformative.
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I agree that having a significant relationship with a person of color can provide critical perspective. I’ve personally seen it. Along with the opposite where “White saviors” befriend or even adopt people of color only to ignore their reality and leverage the relationship to act as some sort of racial expert among their White peers. Those folks fail to realize that their adjacent experience does not mirror the experience of their significant person of color and I wish they could resist the urge to center themselves. But, that’s just me rambling… The question I wanted to ask was, do you have any insights on how to facilitate the formation of those significant relationships.
I read Black authors, I read Black news, choose local and national news with Black anchors, I watch a fair amount of TV/Movies with predominantly Black casts, research and share Black history with my children, White acquaintances and friends. Even at a small scale, I consciously choose Black bank tellers or cashiers etc… just to increase my daily interactions, casual conversations and perspectives. My point is, just like adopting a Black child, all of those things are deliberate actions which take initiative on the part of White people who could literally exist in an almost exclusively White vacuum without even trying.
I like to think that by supporting Black entertainment, authors, websites, stores, etc… that I’m helping to increase the likelihood that other White folks will also interact with people of color. But, that feels pretty insignificant and I’m left wondering what other things can be done to increase the opportunities for passive White people to form those significant relationships. In some ways, you’ve done that by adopting a Black child and raising her in what I assume is a predominantly White space. There’s a separate discussion about how fair it might be to burden her with that work, but the friendships she forms will become the catalyst for some White people in her generation to resist the influences of their otherwise White family and peers.
Because, at the end of the day, I think many White people are simply selfish and they will not put forth the effort to understand or even care about their privilege unless that privilege is directly threatening someone they care about. In other words, I think many White people refuse to consider racism at all unless it directly impacts them. So, how can we increase the odds that it will impact them?
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Great questions and astute observations. I continually struggle between the desire to live across racial lines and the tendency for even these interactions to become white centric. However, I believe these efforts to incrementally alter our society. Indeed, the present backlash may be evidence that society is changing and white people are feeling that impact. As for significant relationships, it must be intentional and it happens most organically when we place ourselves in spaces where we are in the minority. This is not easy or immediate, but have gradually seen my daily interactions become less white and more varied.
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